With little more than a month before election day, the troubled Dole campaign has reached the do-or-die point over the nation's biggest electoral prize, California.
Polls show the Republican nominee down by as many as 20 points there, and campaign advisers are deeply divided over how much advertising money - if any - to spend. Every dollar Bob Dole uses in California is a dollar not spent in areas like the Midwest, where he may have a greater chance of victory.
But for some in the Dole camp, giving up on California could have negative ripple effects that spread four years hence. Dole running mate Jack Kemp, a native Californian and presumed contender for the GOP nomination in 2000, is keen to maintain a presence in his home state and continues to campaign heavily there.
Congressional leaders are also concerned that if the Dole team withdraws from California, some House Republicans could be left vulnerable in tough reelection races. President Bush pulled out of California just after Labor Day in 1992, which hurt Republican candidates in California at all levels. But keeping a Golden State presence is expensive. Mr. Dole has already spent $3 million there. To stay in the running, he would have to spend another $4 million.
Some campaign aides argue they should keep spending to force Bill Clinton to protect his turf. With 54 electoral votes, California is a must-win state for Mr. Clinton, but not for Dole, who can count on other regions, such as the South, to form his base.
The choice would be easier if Dole were faring better in battleground areas like Ohio and Michigan. But he faces double-digit deficits in those and other key Midwest states, and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Clinton is competitive even in stalwart Republican states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida. He campaigned in Texas this week, in an effort not only to boost his own prospects there, but to stump for Democratic congressional candidates. Texas hasn't backed a Democrat for president since 1976.
Winning Arizona would be an even more stunning victory. The state hasn't backed a Democrat for president since 1948, but polls there show Clinton ahead by as many as 11 points.
Meanwhile, the candidates and their surrogates gamely press on, crisscrossing the country, focusing mainly on the largest states. On Wednesday, Elizabeth Dole was in California, where she betrayed no hint of turmoil in her husband's campaign: "Bob Dole is going to win California and win this election," she said. "We don't live by the polls. There are too many examples where the polls are stunningly wrong."
Mr. Kemp touched down in Jacksonville, Fla., where he sought to erase the negative image the GOP has developed among some older Americans worried about Medicare. He blamed Democrats for trying to "scare the wits out of senior citizens." Kemp also appeared in Tucson, Ariz., where he addressed women voters - another voter bloc that strongly favors Clinton - and stopped in South-Central Los Angeles and East Palo Alto in California.
Dole visited Ohio and holed up to prepare for the first presidential debate. He accused Clinton of "photo-op diplomacy" with his instant Mideast summit, but he also faced the cold reality of an incumbent president's newsmaking ability: Even if Clinton's efforts yielded thin results, he won lead coverage on the evening news that enhanced his image as a world leader. It was the kind of free campaign publicity that challenger Dole can't buy for any amount.